By the time I had reached my seventeenth birthday, I had pretty much given up going to the movies. The action films and mysteries I had enjoyed while growing up had started to seem silly and repetitive, Hollywood’s attempts at drama struck me as contrived, melodramatic and sentimental, and although I still enjoyed watching musicals, the contrast between the joyous fantasy world they depicted and life that awaited me on the mean streets of Brooklyn after I left the theater had become so depressing that I abandoned that form of entertainment as well.
Then, one day, I learned that a local movie house was featuring a revival screening of a film which had won the top prizes at both the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals after its initial release in the mid-nineteen fifties. It was a French film called “The Wages of Fear,” and had been directed by Henri Clouzot, a director who had gone on to achieve world prominence a few years later with a thriller called “Diabolique.”
Although “The Wages of Fear” was itself billed as a “thriller,” I soon learned that it far transcended that description. The film was about four impoverished men living in a small town in Venezuela who agree to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerine over 300 miles of bumpy roads to an oil field where it is needed to extinguish a fire.
As a suspense filled adventure story, the film was exceptionally well crafted, but it was also much more than that. The characters were real people who spoke and acted in believable ways and revealed genuine human emotions that I had never seen portrayed in a Hollywood movie. I remember one scene in particular: The men were forced to use some of their nitroglycerine to blow up a large boulder that was blocking the road. After the explosion, one of the men appears to be missing. The man’s buddy is panic stricken for a few moments, thinking that his friend has been killed in the blast. A few seconds later, however, the missing man appears from behind a pile of rocks, smiling and unhurt.
At that moment I said to myself: If this movie is really as good as I think it is, those two men will embrace and kiss each other. That seemed their only appropriate reaction to the scene I had just witnessed, even though I had never seen two men kiss each other before, either in the movies or in real life. And to my astonishment and delight, that’s exactly what they did.
That film, and especially that moment, was a revelation to me. I suddenly realized that films could be much more than escapist entertainment, but rather, like literature, could occasionally rise to the level of genuine art. I decided then that I wanted to become a filmmaker, or at least, devote a good part of my life to promoting the motion picture medium as a tool for exploring the human condition. And that’s what I’ve tried to do ever since.